Marsha P. Johnson, 1945-1992
Marsha P. Johnson was an African American gay man, drag queen and trans rights activist who played a big role in important events in LGBTQ+ history, including the Stonewall protests. Marsha and her good friend Sylvia Rivera founded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR) to support gay and trans individuals who had been made homeless, often after being kicked out of their family homes. In 1992, Marsha went missing, with her body being found six days later. The death was ruled a suicide, but those who knew her contested this, given that attacks on gay and trans people were common at the time. The case was reopened in 2012, and the cause of death was changed to unidentified.
Sylvia Rivera, 1951-2002
Sylvia Rivera was a Latina American gay man, drag queen and trans rights activist who later in life considered herself transgender, and who, alongside Marsha P. Johnson, played a huge role in LGBTQ+ history. She too participated in the Stonewall protests, as well as working with Marsha to found STAR, an organisation which supported gay and trans people who had become homeless. In honour of her activism in the gay and trans community, The Sylvia Rivera Law Project was established in 2002, an organisation which provides access to legal aid for LGBTQ+ people, as well as teaching leadership and advocacy skills. She also established the Gay Liberation Front around the time of the Stonewall protests.
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs, 1825-1895
Karl Heinrich Ulrichs displayed what he later called signs of queerness from a young age. He gravitated towards clothing and activities which were deemed feminine by wider society, and it was this which informed his discussion of queerness and how it is exhibited in men. At the time, queerness and paedophilia were viewed as being largely the same thing; an experience of sexual abuse by his riding instructor aged fourteen is thought to be a driving factor in his overwhelming desire to separate the two from one another. In 1857 he was dismissed from his job for his self-awareness of his sexuality, but he did not let this stop him from being comfortable in his identity and sharing this with his family. As he continued to write and self-examine, he concluded that love between two men was natural, a pioneering thought at the time. In 1867, he became the first queer person to publicly speak in defence of his queerness.
Bayard Rustin, 1912-1987
Bayard Rustin was an American civil rights activist who was an advisor to Martin Luther King Jr. and who was the main organiser of the 1963 March on Washington. Rustin was a gay man, and in 1953, he was arrested after being discovered having sex with a man. His sexual orientation led to him taking on a less public role in the civil rights movement, and as such his significant contributions are often ignored. In the 1980s, Rustin became involved in the gay rights movement. In 2013, he was posthumously awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2020 he was pardoned for his 1953 conviction.
Nancy Cárdenas, 1934-1994
Nancy Cárdenas was a journalist, playwright, stage director and radio host who became the first lesbian public figure to come out in Mexico. She came out as lesbian in a 1969 television interview, marking a historic moment for queer people in the country. She also became a pioneer of the queer liberation movement in Mexico, and in 1974 she founded the Gay Liberation Front (FLH), which was the first LGBTQ+ organisation in Mexico. In 1978 she chaired the country’s first Pride parade. The Nancy Cárdenas Latin American and Mexican Lesbian Documentation and Historical Archives Center (CDAHL) was named in her honour.
Simon Nkoli, 1957-1998
Simon Nkoli was a gay activist and anti-apartheid leader from South Africa. He lived openly as a gay man, and his tireless anti-apartheid work helped to shift the anti-gay opinions of many of those within the anti-apartheid movement. He came out aged 20 to his family, who took him to priests, traditional healers and psychiatrists in an effort to change his sexuality. Aged 19 he met Roy Shepard, a white bus driver who became his lifelong partner. Shepard’s family had accepted his sexuality, but the discovery he was dating a black man was something they did not want to accept. The two vowed to commit suicide if they could not be together, which was when Nkoli’s mother finally came to accept her son’s sexuality. Nkoli was detained during a protest in 1984, and whilst in prison he taught his fellow prisoners that nobody should be discriminated against. He was later released and acquitted. In 1988, he founded the Gay and Lesbian Organisation of the Witwatersrand (GLOW) which was anti-apartheid and strongly political. In 1990, he and a fellow GLOW member organised South Africa’s first Pride parade. The same year he helped found the Township AIDS Project, seeking to educate gay people about the disease. Nkoli died due to HIV-related illnesses in 1998, and was buried with a Pride flag draped over his coffin.
Ifti Nasim, 1946-2011
Ifti Nasim was a gay Pakistani American poet. As a teenager growing up in Pakistan, he felt isolated and ostracised and was unable to live openly as a gay man. Aged 21 he moved to the United States to escape persecution for his sexual orientation. He eventually became nationalised as an American citizen. He established Sangat, an organisation which supported LGBTQ+ South Asian youths, before reaching international fame for the publication of the poetry collection Narman. Narman is a word which means half man, half woman in Persian. It was met with widespread controversy in Pakistan and was distributed underground. Despite the controversy, he inspired a younger generation to write honest poetry, which later became known as narmani poetry.
Arsham Parsi, 1981-present
Arsham Parsi is a gay Iranian LGBTQ+ human rights activist who is living in exile in Canada. After having felt isolated growing up in Iran, Arsham found solace on the internet aged 15, and began volunteering for underground gay organisations. Aged 19 he founded the Persian Gay and Lesbian Organisation (PGLO), which had to be officially registered in Norway as it wouldn’t be recognised in Iran, and he networked with doctors to provide HIV testing. The laws against homosexuality in Iran forced Parsi to keep his work secret from family and friends, until in March 2005 he realised the police were looking for him, and he fled to Turkey, where he stayed for 13 months before moving to Canada. In 2006 he founded the Iranian Queer Organisation (IRQO) in Toronto, later leaving to found the Iranian Railroad for Queer Refugees in Toronto in 2008, where he works on queer asylum cases.
Gilbert Baker, 1951-2017
Gilbert Baker was an American artist, gay rights activist, and the creator of the rainbow Pride flag which is now symbolic of LGBTQ+ communities the world over. During his time in the U.S. Army, he lived as an openly gay man. Upon leaving the military, he learnt to sew, a skill which he then used to create banners for gay rights and anti-war protest marches. He was also a member of the gay drag activist group Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. In 1978 he created the Rainbow Flag with a collective, and in 1994 for the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots he created the world’s largest flag at that time. In 2003, to commemorate the Rainbow Flag’s 25th anniversary, he created a Rainbow Flag that stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Atlantic Ocean in Key West. He then sent sections of this flag to more than 100 cities worldwide.
Munroe Bergdorf, 1987-present
Munroe Bergdorf is a transgender English model and activist. She has walked for many major fashion brands at London and NYC’s Fashion Weeks and was also the first transgender model in the UK for L’Oréal, although she was later dropped after a racial row. Bergdorf campaigns tirelessly for transgender rights, and has held positions including LGBT advisor to the Labour Party, the face of Illamasqua’s Beauty Spotlight campaign which concerned gender fluidity, and most recently, she was appointed to L’Oréal’s UK Diversity & Inclusion Advisory Board, which was set up after Bergdorf called them out on Instagram during the worldwide BLM protests when they posted about standing in solidarity with the black community, as she noted that they had never apologised to her for her dismissal from the company a few years prior.